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Editor's Weekly: Reasons To Like -- Or At Least Tolerate -- Our Membership Drive

Some of the combined staff of St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon
Jess Luther | St. Louis Public Radio

OK, we know you hate it when you turn on the radio expecting to hear Morning Edition or Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and instead you hear us asking for money. Again? Still?

So why do we do it? Here's the story.

Chapter One: The Reign of Commercial News

For many decades, Americans got their news almost exclusively from for-profit newspapers and commercial broadcast stations. While interested in making money, the best of these corporations were also committed to great reporting. Their business model was a Rube Goldberg contraption, but it worked: News drew audiences; ad dollars chased audiences; therefore, ad dollars flowed to news organizations in abundance, sustaining both profits and journalism.

Chapter Two: Digital Disruption

The Rube Goldberg business model worked in part because media operations were expensive to start and limited in number. That meant advertisers and audiences had few options. Digital technology changed all that. Now anyone can publish or broadcast at virtually no cost. Content may be shoddy, but it's ubiquitous. Advertisers can reach customers directly. Audiences are fragmented and so are our attention spans. With revenues and readership in a tailspin, traditional newsrooms have shrunk -- drastically.

While the business model for traditional news organizations has collapsed, the need for good reporting is as great as ever. Of course, journalists aren’t the only source of reliable information and never were. But especially amidst the digital din, good reporting is a valuable public resource. It holds powerful interests accountable, questions unexamined assumptions, challenges conventional wisdom and puts current events in context. In a region as fragmented as St. Louis, it bridges divisions, creating common ground where facts and fairness prevail.

Chapter Three: Building New Models For News

To sustain good reporting, new business models must be invented. Across the country, nonprofit and for-profit organizations are tackling the challenge. No silver bullet solution has emerged. Rather, success seems to lie in developing multiple revenue streams. Increasingly, a key one is direct support, whether through crowdfunding, paywalls or membership drives. Membership is perhaps the most valued since it reflects true support from those who are served. Not every news organization will run semi-annual membership drives as we do. But few will survive unless they build public support.

Chapter Four: St. Louis Public Radio's Story

Our membership drive, which began Thursday, comes at a remarkable time. With the merger of the station and the St. Louis Beacon in December, we have doubled the size of our newsroom and redoubled our dedication to serving St. Louisans with news that matters.

As the St. Louis region mobilizes for reinvention, we’ve mobilized to reinvent local news coverage. You can already see greater depth and breadth in our work. You'll continue to see innovation as we seize opportunities to connect with you in multiple ways – on air, through our website, social media, email and in person; using audio, text, data and so on. Our work can not only help the St. Louis region move forward; it can also help pave the way for a national renaissance of regional news coverage. Together, public broadcasting organizations and emerging nonprofit news organizations have the heft and experience necessary to make a difference.

We're grateful for the more than 20,000 St. Louisans who have previously pledged support to our work. We know the drive now underway is our best chance to broaden that support. Yes, you'd rather hear something other than us asking for money. But while enduring our appeals, we hope you'll have new appreciation for the vital role you play in sustaining great reporting on news that matters.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.